Plumbing Maladies

Leaking Faucet

One of the most common maladies in the home is the dripping faucet, something that seems to occur most often in the middle of the night. Before making the repair, it's a good idea to understand how a faucet works.

There are various types of faucets, but the most common group are those with washers. Here, the exterior faucet handle is attached to a shaft, called a spindle, and has a threaded part that screws down and covers a hole inside the faucet body—the part that's secured to the sink. Water is constantly ON—being fed through pipes and up into the faucet. But when the faucet is turned OFF, the bottom of the spindle acts like a cork—water pushes up against it but can't pass. When the faucet is turned ON, the spindle screws up and out of the hole, and water flows.

The Key to It All. The thing that really seals off the hole is the washer at the bottom of the spindle. This is made of a rubber or soft plastic material, and it looks like a tiny donut. It has some give, or softness, so that when it contacts the edges of the hole, it seals well; water can't slip up around the edges of the spindle. As time passes, however, the washer wears down and eventually loses its perfect seal. Just a little water gets by—and goes drip.

One's first inclination is to turn the faucet tighter, and, at least in the beginning, this will do the job. But eventually, no matter how hard you tighten, it will not seal completely.

Exploded view of faucet

No Brain Surgery Required. Making the repair is simple: Just replace the washer. First, though, you must turn off the water (remember, it's always flowing). This is usually simple to do. Under the sink or lavatory (bathroom sink), you will see two wheels projecting from the wall. These are the valves that control the water flow to the faucet. The one on the left controls the hot water; the one on the right controls the cold water. If the drip is cold water, just turn the right wheel all the way to the right; if hot water, do the same thing with the left wheel.

In some cases there won't be any valves under the sink. If you tried you could find valves on other pipes in the basement (or elsewhere) that control the flow, but it's a lot easier to turn the main water shutoff valve. This is located next to the water meter. Just turn it clockwise all the way and the water will stop. If you don't know where it's located, you should learn. Your water company will tell you, or even have someone come over and show you.

Taking It Apart. How you take the faucet apart will depend on what kind you have, but essentially it is a series of “things” that look like they can be unscrewed or turned and the faucet comes apart. There's no great mystery involved. One type of faucet has a big fat chrome nut. You can remove this with wrench jaws that open at least an inch wide and with flat jaws that grip the “flats” on the nut so you can turn and loosen it with a counterclockwise motion. If you don't have an adjustable wrench, pliers can sometimes be used, but the nut must first be covered with tape, or even Band-Aid™, so the plier jaws don't scratch the chrome.

Up and Out. Once the big fat nut is loose, you turn the handle, and the spindle and the assembly will come up and out. The washer is on the end of the spindle, held on by a screw. Grip the assembly in one hand and turn the screw out with an ordinary screwdriver, its tip size corresponding to the size of the screw slot.

Plumber's Secret

Most of the time the screw will turn out easily. If it doesn't, a good trick is to use a screwdriver to dig the washer out, exposing the screw head fully. Then, use a pair of pliers to turn it out. If it still balks, you can douse the screw with a penetrating oil (WD-40 is one brand name); the oil will work its way down and into the screw threads, breaking up any corrosion that's locking the screw in place.

New Washer. Washers can be bought singly and in small boxed assortments, which also contain a few brass screws of various sizes. Buy the box. Washers do wear out, and it is convenient having the right sizes around.

To determine the size needed, simply try various sizes until one fits neatly. Then secure it with a new brass screw, and screw the faucet back in place. Make sure—ask the dealer—that the screw is brass, not steel colored to look like brass; steel can corrode; brass will not. Screw the shaft down into the faucet body, and tighten the big fat nut. Do it slowly—don't force—and keep the nut and shaft straight as you go.

Handle being taken off

Turn on the water and see if the drip stops. Sometimes a few turns are necessary before this happens.

Unscrew spindle washer at bottom

Another Type of Faucet. There is another type of faucet that does not have a big fat nut on the outside. The handle covers the shaft, or spindle. For this type, first remove the handle. Do this by unscrewing the so-called Phillips screw that holds it on to the top of the spindle. Once this is out, you will see a large nut. Put your adjustable wrench on this, and turn counterclockwise until loose. Then, put the handle back over the top of the shaft, and turn it as if you were turning the faucet on. The whole thing will come up and out. On the bottom, of course, you'll see the washer.

There are other types of faucets, but the trick is the same. Turn what looks like it can be turned until you can get at the washer.

Other Leaky Faucet Maladies

If replacing the washer doesn't stop the leak, it usually means that the seat, the part that the washer presses down against, is worn. Fixing this is not brain surgery either, but you first have to determine if the seat is replaceable or not.

Fat nut being loosened

To do this, remove the spindle. Then, shine a flashlight down into the faucet body hole. If you see a round hole, it means that the entire faucet may have to be replaced. However, if you see a hole with—you guessed it—flat edges, it means that there is a tool, called a faucet seat wrench, that can be used to remove it so that you can insert a replacement.

Faucet-seat wrench

The faucet seat wrench is an L-shaped tool with both ends ground flat in graduated sizes and is designed to be able to be poked down into the hole, fitting snugly against corresponding flats in the seat. Turning the tool counterclockwise loosens the seat, which is screwed in place, and you can lift it up and out.

Finding a Replacement Seat. One wonders who figured out replacement seats. Whoever did should be institutionalized, because there are literally hundreds of different sizes. Fortunately for the do-it-yourselfer, however, there is an easy way to get the right size: Just bring the old one into the store. Hardware stores, home centers, and plumbing supply stores all carry replacement seats. The dealer should be able to furnish you with a replacement.

To install the new seat, slip it over the end of the faucet seat tool, and then push the tool into the faucet until it sticks by friction. Keeping the seat straight so that its threads correspond to threads on the faucet, screw it in place. Now you have a smooth new surface for the washer to seal against.

Round and hexagonal seats

Round Seat. If your investigation shows that the seat has no flats on it, but it is round, it may mean, as mentioned, that the entire faucet needs to be replaced. But before doing this, you should obtain a faucet seat reamer. This is a tool for grinding down the seat so that the washer will fit snugly. The device hooks onto the faucet body and has a shaft with a rough end, which is used to grind away the rough portions on the seat. Consult the instructions that come with the tool for more details.

Valves Need Their Exercise Too

Water shutoff valves will last longer if every now and then—say every six months—they are turned from OFF to ON and back again. Reason: Turning tends to grind away rust or corrosion that can build up, creating a fresh surface where the working parts of the valves meet.

Washerless Faucets

Another common group of faucets are the washerless ones. Instead, the faucet contains a plastic or metal ball with holes in it. The ball is manipulated with a single handle, and there are corresponding holes in the faucet body. When the holes in the ball align with those in the faucet body, the water flows.

Washerless faucet

Handle Puller

Some faucet handles are so corroded that not even dousing the parts with penetrating oil will enable you to turn them. When this is the case, you should buy a handle puller, a device that can be hooked over a handle and the handle pulled off, working like the wheel puller on a car. The device costs only $6 or $7, which is a bargain when compared with what a plumber might charge.

Although these are not washers in the conventional sense, the holes in the ball do have washers of a sort; and these can go bad. If there is a problem, tell the dealer exactly what type of faucet you have, and he can furnish you with a kit that contains all the parts needed, including a tool for installation.

Stopping the Noise

If a faucet is dripping in the middle of the night and it's inconvenient to make the repair, you can at least silence it temporarily. To do this, find a shoelace or a long piece of string. Wet the string thoroughly, and then tie one end to the faucet nozzle, letting the rest hang down into the drain. Fiddle with the tied-on end until the dripping water runs down the string. This will carry it noiselessly to the drain. And that's it. If you don't have a string or shoelace handy, use a sock, rag, or towel, first wetting the item thoroughly.

Stopped-Up Sink

Another common plumbing malady is the stopped-up sink. This is a problem that can usually be solved with a plunger, also known as the handyperson's helper, or force cup. It consists of a handle with a rubber cup.

Plunging sink

As with other tools, it's best to get quality. One made of thick rubber with a retractable bulb, which is useful in clearing a toilet clog, works well.

To use the tool, first make sure there is enough water in the sink to cover the cup. Then, start plunging, pressing the cup down, and then lifting it up about an inch off the drain. Every now and then pull up hard.

When the water retreats, turn on the faucet full blast to see if the water goes down freely. If it does, this means that the blockage has been knocked loose and is heading for the sewer line. As a final treatment, turn on the hot water for a few minutes or pour boiling water into the drain. This will help dissolve any grease that may have accumulated where the blockage was.

If the sink has an overflow outlet, this should be plugged with a wet rag while the plunging is being done. Or, if you're plunging one of a pair of sinks, you must plug the other sink's drain. If you don't plug the opening, the suction you're creating by plunging will escape—you won't get much result.

Drain pipes, trap

If you find that the plunger doesn't work after three or four minutes, it means you have to take sterner measures.

Take Off the Trap. The next step is to take off the trap, a J-shaped pipe section that is under the sink. The trap's purpose, as mentioned earlier, is to trap a little water, which itself acts as a seal against gas from the sewer line flowing into the house. But the trap also catches such things as knives, forks, toothbrushes, spoons, rings—you name it. Debris clings to and collects on these items, and a blockage ultimately results.

So, take a wrench of big enough size and turn counterclockwise each of the nuts that are at the top and bottom end of the J. Slip these nuts up and off, and then gently remove the trap. When you do, it is likely that whatever is causing the blockage will plop out, along with accumulated water, so have a pan or pail under the trap.

Probing trap

Some traps have a plug on the bottom that can be unscrewed. Just use a wrench to turn this off. Then you may be able to fish out whatever is causing the blockage. With the blockage out, reassemble the pipe, and run hot water to help remove grease.

Snake. If the above ministrations fail, it's likely that the blockage is in the pipe somewhere beyond the trap. Many times this can be cleared with a snake, so called because it is a flexible wire cable that bends relatively easily. One end is pointed and has a hook on it; the other has a handle and a crank that enables the snake to be turned.

If it's not already off, take off the trap or the plug on the trap. With your hands, feed the snake into the pipe that goes into the wall. When it's firmly implanted, slide the tubelike handle down along the cable until it's a couple of feet from the pipe opening, and lock the crank in place by turning down on the little screw. Then push the snake in, at the same time turning the tube handle, which will turn the snake.

If the snake becomes stuck, it may mean that it's jammed in a bend in the pipe; but it also may mean that you've located the blockage. Push, pull, and twist. If it feels like it's really stuck, pull all the way out. The hook may have caught on the blockage, and you may be able to drag it out. If not, repeat the procedure.

As you feed the snake into the pipe, keep sliding the handle down and setting it in position. If the blockage is not cleared by the time you've fed all of the snake into the pipe, it's time for a plumber.

What about Caustic Cleaners?

A number of caustic or acid-based drain cleaners are sold, and the advice is to periodically pour them down a drain, or to use them to help clear a clog. Most commercial drain cleaners are considered caustic. I think it's okay to use them periodically, or to use them to clear a sluggish drain; but I wouldn't suggest they be used when a drain is totally stopped. If the chemical doesn't work, it means that the trap has to be taken off, which will then be filled with water and caustic chemicals.

Don't Work in the Nude if You Have a Cat

The funniest story I ever heard vis-à-vis taking a trap apart (I haven't heard that many!) concerned a woman who dropped her wedding ring down the drain. She awakened her husband and said he'd have to get up and take the trap off to retrieve the ring.

A few minutes later the husband was on his back, half in and half out of the kitchen cabinet, taking the trap off. And the family cat was on its haunches nearby, carefully observing a certain part of the man's anatomy, a part that the cat apparently started to regard as prey.

The cat leaped, and the man banged his head on the trap and was knocked unconscious. He recovered, but the fate of the cat is unknown.

Stopped-up Toilet

The first thing to know about a clogged toilet is how to turn the water off quickly. Otherwise, the clogged bowl can fill up with water and overflow. Take the lid off the tank, and pull up the thin metal rod that the copper or plastic float ball is attached to. As will be detailed later, this turns off the valve and stops flow instantly. Once you pull up the rod, you can wedge something under it or tie it to the nearest cabinet knob (or something else to hold it in position). You can also stop water flow by turning off the water supply valve under the tank.

Next, try to clear the blockage with a plunger. The 6-inch one with a retractable bulb works well. This bulb fits snugly into the hole in the bottom of the bowl and allows better suction.

Plunge as You Would a Sink. Just plunge the bowl as you would a sink. Place the plunger into the hole in the bowl, and press forcefully down, compressing it.

Pull up about an inch, then press down again. Go up and down in a steady rhythm, every now and then pulling up hard. If you see the water starting to go down, continue to plunge until it is all gone. As a final test to see if the blockage is cleared, flush the toilet.

Plumber's Secret

If the bow! is filled to the brim with water before you start plunging, take an old pot or pail and ladle out some of it, bringing it down about 6 inches. Otherwise, the water will spill on the floor when you start to plunge.

Sterner Measures. If a few minutes of plunging doesn't work, you have to take sterner measures. You will need a closet auger or snake that is especially designed for clearing toilet blockages. It gets its name from the “water closet,” the name the toilet tank was first called, and is still called by professionals.

A closet auger is similar to a snake, as described earlier. It's a cable with a pointed, hooked end. But in this model, the cable is thicker and less flexible and has a crank handle. It also has a rubber section that keeps it from scratching the bowl.

To use the tool, feed the end into the toilet hole with your hands. When it's inside, push it upward. Like sinks, toilets have traps built into them, and the idea is to have the auger drive through the trap to clear anything that might be lodged there, and into the pipe beyond.

All the Way In. You should push it in as far as you can with your hands, and when enough of it is solidly wedged in place, turn the handle, at the same time pushing. This will turn the end.

If the auger becomes stuck, it may mean that you've contacted the blockage. Push extra hard, also turning. If it feels as though the hook on the end has caught onto something, pull out hard. Of course, it could also mean that the auger is wedged solidly into a pipe bend.

If the auger doesn't clear the blockage, the toilet can be dismounted and the trap checked. This is easier than it sounds. In most cases, all you need to do is disconnect the water supply and free the toilet from the floor bolts, on which it is mounted. More than once, a child's missing toy has been discovered there.

Flush Tank Problems

Other problems with a toilet usually occur because something goes wrong in the flush tank. The flush tank is the squarish box above the toilet; it holds the flush water.

Closet auger

It's a good idea to get thoroughly familiar with how a toilet works before doing any repairs. So, carry this book into the bathroom and let's check it out. Refer to the numbered drawing (on page 60) as we go along.

First, lift off the top of the tank. Do this carefully. If you drop it, it could chip or break. Set it aside and look down into the tank. Looks like a hopeless jungle of piping, doesn't it? It's really not complicated.

Turn the tank handle (1) just a little. When you do, you'll see that it moves a vertical rod (or chain) (2) upward. Turn the handle fully to flush the tank. See what happens? The rod (or chain) lifts a rubber valve (3) that's resting in a hole in the bottom of the tank. When the valve is lifted out of the hole, the water in the tank runs out into the bowl, flushing it. Then the tank fills up again, automatically.

Flush the tank again and watch what happens to the float (4). As the water runs out, the float—which of course is floating—goes down with the water level.

The float does two jobs. First, when it gets near the bottom of the tank, the end of the rod it's on opens a water inlet valve, or ballcock (5), and new water starts to rush into the tank. At the same time, the valve at the bottom of the tank, which has been held up by water rushing past it through the hole, drops down and closes the hole, because there's no more water to keep it open. Second, as the water level rises, the float rises, and the end of the rod it's on gradually closes off the water inlet valve. So the float turns the water on and off.

Flush tank cross section

While the tank is filling, a little tube (6) shoots water into the overflow tube (7) and fills up the bowl itself. If for some reason the incoming water flow is not shut off, the water will flow out the overflow tube into the bowl. There is no way that a toilet tank can overflow.

There are other parts to a toilet tank mechanism, but knowing those already mentioned will enable you to make the majority of the repairs required. Now, let's cover the common problems.

First, if you have a problem, take off the tank top so that you can see what's going on. If, after flushing, water keeps on running into the bowl and yet the tank doesn't fill up all the way, it usually means that the little rubber valve at the bottom of the tank is defective: It is not plugging up the hole completely.

For valve to seat properly, lift rod must be straight

Replace Valve. The cure is to replace the ball. First, shut off the water to the tank. This is done by turning off the water supply to the tank. You can do this by turning off the valve either below the tank or somewhere on the bathroom wall. An easier way, however, is by simply lifting the rod that the float is on as high as you can, then tying it in that position to something above the tank (like a cabinet doorknob). As you may remember, this closes off the inlet water valve.

Flush the tank, emptying it. When it's empty, hold the rod (or chain) that the valve is on and unscrew the valve with your other hand. Place it aside and gently wipe off the edges of the hole the ball rests in with fine-grade steel wool (available at hardware stores and home centers).

Take the valve to the hardware store and ask for one just like it. If, when you took the ball off, you noticed that the rod it was attached to was bent, get a new one of those, too. A bent rod can keep the ball from going in straight and plugging the hole completely.

Flusher Fixer kit

With the rod in place, screw the new valve onto it. Untie the float rod or turn the water supply valve back on. Flush the toilet. If the water still runs out of the tank and the tank doesn't fill all the way, the valve is not fitting into the hole properly. This can be because the guide arm (8) that the rod fits through may not be properly positioned. Just turn off the water supply again, loosen the little screw holding the arm to the overflow tube, and jiggle the arm back and forth until the ball drops into the hole perfectly. Then tighten the screw to hold the rod permanently in that position.

In some cases, the outlet hole may be so damaged that snug sealing by the valve is not possible. Here, you can get a kit (from the manufacturer Flusher Fixer) that allows you to epoxy a new seat over the hole.

Water Keeps Running. Sometimes the tank fills up all the way but the water continues to run until it goes out the overflow tube. If this is happening, you'll not only see the water running out the overflow pipe but also hear a hissing noise. This indicates that something is wrong with either the water inlet valve or the ball float or its particular rod.

Unscrew float ball

Lift up the float. If the hissing noise stops and the water stops flowing, it means the trouble is with the float or the rod. Flush the toilet, emptying the tank. Tie the rod as before to shut off the water, or turn it off by turning off the water supply valve.

Unscrew the float and shake it. If there is water inside, the float must be replaced. Simply trot down to your local hardware store and get one just like it. Screw the new float in place, untie the rod (or turn the water supply valve on), and flush the tank. The tank should fill up but not overflow.

If you find when you take off the float that it doesn't have water in it, the problem is with the rod. To correct this, screw the rod in tightly, and then bend it downward with your hands, so the float is another half inch or so down into the tank. Flush the toilet. The float should be positioned so the water stops about an inch from the top of the overflow pipe. If it doesn't, bend the rod a little more to achieve this.

Money-Saving Tip

Buy a plastic float ball instead of a copper one. It costs a lot less and lasts longer.

Bend down float rod

If lifting the rod up does not shut off the water flow, it means that something is wrong with the water inlet valve. For this you can get the Flusher Fixer Kit (mentioned previously). It is inexpensive—under $10—and contains instructions on how to remove the ballcock mechanism, which the inlet valve is part of, and replace it with the valve.

Erratic Faucet Spray

Many faucets are equipped with a little strainerlike device that screws onto the end of the faucet. Its purpose is to aerate the water so it doesn't splash when it hits the sink. When one of these gets clogged with soil, the water starts to jet—and splash—rather than flow in a soft, smooth stream.


To cure the problem, first remove the device from the faucet. Sometimes you can do this by simply turning it to the left or right—whichever way the thing goes—with your fingers. If necessary, use a pair of pliers, first wrapping a little tape around the device to protect its shiny finish from the jaws of the pliers. Remove the little screens (or screen) from the device. You can poke them out with your finger or pick them out with the point of a knife. Note where each goes, so you can reassemble them properly later.

Using an old toothbrush and a little hand soap, brush the screens thoroughly, even if dirt isn't visible. Rinse them thoroughly, replace them, and then screw the device back onto the faucet and tighten carefully. (Some screens may not come out, so just brush the exposed screen vigorously. That usually does the trick.)

Money-Saving Tip

If you need a new aerator, buy plastic instead of stainless steel and save half the price—and plastic works well.

Erratic Shower Spray

If a shower head ejects water in a hard stream, it probably means that inside is a soil buildup. Some of the little holes where the water comes out are clogged; so the water is virtually fired out of the other ones.

First, grip the shower head in your hand and turn it counterclockwise. It should come right off. If you need help, use a wrench or pliers.

Using a flashlight, look down into the hole in the back of the head. You'll likely see some foreign matter. If you hold the head to the light, you'll see that some of the holes are blocked.

Soap up a Q-Tip or a toothpick with cotton on the end and work down inside the shower head, clearing the holes and wiping the entire inside. After a few minutes, discard the Q-Tip and run hot water through the head until it emerges from the little holes. Repeat the procedure four or five times until a Q-Tip emerges as clean as it went in.

Screw the head back on the shower and turn on the water. If it doesn't come out properly, repeat the Q-Tip procedure as needed.

Leaky Water Pipes

You may be surprised to learn that you can probably repair a leaky pipe. You might not be able to fix one that's spewing water—that's usually a job for a plumber. However, you can repair the pinhole or small-hole leaks that drip or even spray a fairly steady stream of water.

The first thing to do is to turn off the water. As with a faucet, there are valves controlling water flow through particular pipes; ideally, you'd simply turn off the valve that would stop water flowing through the damaged pipe. If you're not sure which valve controls what, you can turn off the main water valve, as described earlier. As you know, however, this will turn off both hot and cold water everywhere in the house.

To patch hole, place rubber over it Tighten with clamps

The repair can be made in different ways. One way is by patching the leak with an epoxy putty, such as the kind Oatey makes. Just press the material over the hole. It dries as hard as steel.

Place Fernco on leaky pipe Clamp in place

Another way is to use a clamp-type patch obtainable at hardware stores. It comes with a rubber patch that looks like a bicycle tube patch. Place this patch over the hole, then slip the clamp device over the patch; tighten the clamp with the bolts provided. This presses the rubber hard against the hole, and water can't get out. You can turn the water on right away; it's a five-minute repair that will last awhile.

Another solution is offered by the Fernco Company. They make repair collars that you slit, press over the tube, and tighten on with steel clamps.

If you have a hole in a trap, take off the piece and replace it. (Check the section on clearing a clogged sink regarding how to remove and replace the trap.)

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